Every time educators prepare for a new school year, safety is a priority, along with providing the best possible learning experience they can for their students. This year is different, with a heavier emphasis on safety and new teaching challenges, and some changes must be made.


The Texas Education Agency has issued many guidelines and directives, including arbitrary deadlines for when schools must reopen for in-person instruction. The truth is that with thousands of new COVID-19 cases every day in Texas and deaths increasing, we don’t know when it will be safe to do that.


We don’t need deadlines. We need an order from Gov. Greg Abbott restricting all school districts to online learning, with no exceptions and no state funding penalties, until local health professionals, in consultation with local school administrators, campus employees and parents, decide it is safe to reopen school buildings in their communities. That day may vary among different areas, and the state must ensure that strict safety standards are in place and enforced when that happens.


Teachers, school support staff and parents must be involved in this process because they and their children will be at greatest risk when classrooms are reopened.


The extended closure of school buildings will put some students at risk of being left out, primarily low-income students who don’t have computers or reliable internet access. But this is a health emergency. We can replace lost educational opportunities. We cannot replace lost lives.


Nevertheless, the state and districts must redouble efforts to identify these students and provide them the resources they need. Gov. Abbott has announced the distribution of $200 million in emergency federal funds from the CARES Act to improve technological opportunities.


The Texas State Teachers Association is demanding that Congress include more funding for this need in the next coronavirus emergency bill. And we are demanding that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stop diverting federal emergency funding intended for low-income students to private school students of all income levels, including many who already have the technology they need.


These also are essential requirements for a safe, productive school year:


School districts must continue to safely distribute free lunches to low-income children while campuses remain shut down. Many of these kids will go hungry without them.


All school support staff, many of whom will continue to be at risk of contracting the coronavirus while they distribute meals and protect and clean school buildings, must be paid during the online learning period.


Teachers and support staff must be granted paid, emergency leave if they contract the virus.


Teachers who fear they are at special risk of compromising their health or have family members at risk must be given the option of teaching remotely from home when campuses reopen. Parents have the remote option for their children. Teachers deserve it too.


The governor must act now to suspend STAAR testing for the new school year. It remains an unnecessary stress that teachers, students and their families don’t need while coping with a health crisis and adjusting to the new realities of public education. It also is an expenditure of at least $73 million, which would be better spent on real educational needs. The A-F school accountability system, largely based on STAAR scores, also must be suspended.


T-TESS, the teacher appraisal system, also heavily based on STAAR, must be waived, as teachers adjust to new teaching practices, requirements and student needs.


This school year will be like none before. Educators will meet their challenges, but they and their students must be allowed to teach and learn safely without unnecessary distractions.


Ovidia Molina is president of the Texas State Teachers Association